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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

China and India Battle Over Thin Air

February 3, 2010

By Conn Hallinan
Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF)
January 27, 2010

Of all the world’s potential hotspots, one of the
most unlikely is tucked into the folds of the
Himalayas. This slice of ground is little more
than frozen rock fields and soaring peaks that is
decidedly short on people, resources, and oxygen.
But for the past year this border area has been a
worrisome source of friction between India and
China, including incursions by Chinese troops,
the wounding of several Indian border police, and
a buildup of military forces on both sides.

Some Indian analysts go so far as to say that
China has now replaced Pakistan as India’s
greatest threat. And indeed, Beijing has been
uncharacteristically assertive in pushing its
claims to a sizable chunk of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state.

Why the two huge Asian nations facing off over
ground that all but the hardiest of goats avoid?
The answer involves both colonialism’s bitter
legacy and current U.S. efforts to maintain its pre-eminent role in the region.

Ghosts of ‘62

The area in question, which borders Tibet and
covers an area about the size of Austria, is
delineated by a boundary that has shifted over
the millennia. The British drew the current line
in 1914, but the Chinese have never recognized
the agreement that established it -- the
so-called 'Simja Convention' -- because they saw
it as just another treaty forced on China by
Western colonial powers. Because the area in
dispute was once connected to Tibet, Beijing says the region is part of China.

So far the tension on the border has resulted in
little more than Chinese soldiers painting rocks
red on the Indian side. In the one shooting
incident, gunfire from the Chinese side of the
border wounded two members of the Indo-Tibetan
Police Force. The Indians have responded by
moving 30,000 troops and its latest warplanes into the area.

The region has long been a volatile one. Similar
tensions in 1962 sparked a 32-day war that killed
3,100 Indian and 700 Chinese soldiers, and
resulted in a humiliating defeat for New Delhi.

India’s right wing, led by the Bharatija Janata
Party (BJP), raised the specter of the 1962 war
and is now demanding that India respond to
Chinese "aggression." "India must take adequate
precautions," says BJP President Rajnath Singh.
Retired Indian Air Force Marshall Fali Homi says
that China now poses a bigger threat than India’s
traditional adversary, Pakistan, and former
Indian National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra
predicts a China-India war within five years.

Some Indians even charge -- without evidence --
that China is supporting India’s homegrown
Maoists, or Naxalites, who are waging a low-key
insurgency against the Indian government.

The rhetoric on the Chinese side is less
bombastic, but Beijing’s statements have been
unusually sharp, especially after the Dalai Lama
visited the region this past November.

China’s prickliness over its borders is hardly
new. But with the exception of its attack on
Vietnam in 1979, Beijing has threaded a careful
path between asserting its power and reassuring
its neighbors that it isn’t about to become the
bully on the block. Why then the pugnacity over
what can hardly be considered strategic ground?

Enter the United States

In 2005, the Bush administration executed a full
court press to bring India into an alliance with
Washington and its allies in the Pacific region
-- specifically Australia, South Korea, and Japan
-- to counter the rise of China. Washington
warned that the Chinese military, in particular
its naval arm, was expanding rapidly and would
soon pose a threat to other nations in Asia. The
United States and India held joint military
operations, and the Washington urged New Delhi to
actively patrol the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Since 80 percent of China’s oil and gas supplies
transit the Indian Ocean and South China Sea,
talk of joint patrols was certain to draw a
response from Beijing. And indeed, the Chinese
navy is increasingly making its presence known in
the area. China is also in the process of
developing a series of friendly ports -- its
so-called "string of pearls" -- from Africa to Southeast Asia.

The Bush administration also pushed through
Congress the "1-2-3 Agreement," which allows
India to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty by buying uranium on the world market,
even though New Delhi won’t sign the pact. This
will allow India to rapidly increase its nuclear
arsenal, which is certain to spark a similar buildup by Pakistan.

As Islamabad’s leading military supplier, China
has long had a friendly relationship with
Pakistan. It’s concerned that tension between
India and Pakistan could lead to war. A recent
study by climate scientists Alan Robock and Owen
Toon found such a war would result in a "nuclear
winter" that would devastate China, indeed, much of the world.

New Delhi and China are also at loggerheads over
Afghanistan, with the Chinese dubious of the U.S.
war and the Indians strongly supportive.

China’s response to the growing U.S.-Indian
alliance was to oppose the "1-2-3 Agreement,"
block India’s application for a permanent seat in
the UN Security Council, and try to torpedo a
loan from the Asian Development Bank to fund
flood control in Arunachal Pradesh.

Growing Interdependence

Yet the current tensions between India and China
over 90,000 thousand square miles of ice and rock
fly in the face of a growing interdependence
between the two Asian giants. China is now
India’s number-one trading partner. Bilateral
trade has risen from under $3 billion in 2000 to
almost $52 billion in 2008, and is growing at
almost three times the rate of U.S.-China trade.
Estimates are that by 2020, China-India trade
will surpass $410 billion, a figure equal to last
year’s U.S.-China trade. China’s powerful
manufacturing sector complements India’s wealth
of raw materials and cutting-edge technology
industry. China needs India’s iron ore, bauxite
and manganese, and India needs China’s low-priced
manufactured goods to upgrade its infrastructure.
China also has huge foreign reserves to invest,
although cross-border investment is still modest.

Both sides have tried to tamp down the border
dispute. Asked about tensions between New Delhi
and Beijing, India’s Deputy Foreign Minister
Shashi Tharoor replied that "things seem to be
very good," adding that "minor irritants" had
been blown our of proportion by the media.

And yet the region remains a witch’s brew of
dangerous hotspots and powerful cross-currents:
the U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, ongoing
tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir,
and Washington’s sometimes warm, sometimes cool attitude toward China.

Indian newspapers have been filled with headlines
like "Red Peril," and "Enter the Dragon," and
senior Indian national security advisor M.K.
Narayaman warned that "media hype" could set off
an "unwarranted incident or accident." Chinese
newspapers and websites have also reflected
strong nationalist sentiments over the issue.

If the Obama administration wants to avoid making
a dangerous situation worse, it should revisit
the "1-2-3 Agreement" and put the peaceful
resolution of the Kashmir problem back on the
table. During his presidential campaign, Obama
promised to pressure both sides on Kashmir, the
flashpoint for three wars between India and
Pakistan. But under intense Indian pressure,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special
Envoy to South Asia Richard Holbrooke dropped the issue.

It’s also time for the United States to realize
that it can no longer dominate Asia. In its
efforts to maintain its former status as top dog
in the region, Washington has exacerbated
tensions among several countries in the area,
tensions that have the potential to produce catastrophic consequences.

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.
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